Early English settlers in Virginia 1606-1624

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Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Part 1 of 3

In Worcester Cathedral Library is a description of events written by George Percy from volume 4 of a set entitled “Purchas’ Pilgrims: English plantations, discoveries, acts, and occurrences, in Virginia and Summer Islands since the year 1606. Till 1624. The Ninth Book”. This tells the story of the struggles of the English who set out from London. They crossed the Atlantic. On 23rd February 1607 they sighted land at the Island of Mattanenio in the West Indies. The next day, they anchored off the coast of Dominico. They met some natives who were keen to come aboard, and swopped food that was no doubt gratefully received after a long sea voyage, for knives and hatchets. Percy described them as having very long hair, tattoos, and as painting their bodies red “to keep the biting of mosquitos away.” On the 26th February the English sighted Marigalanta and the next day, the island of Guadalupa. Here they discovered a hot spring in which they boiled some pork. They pushed on past the uninhabited islands of Mounserot and St. Christopher and anchored off the island of Meuis. They eventually landed and stayed on the island for several days. Again they took the opportunity to supplement their diet by hunting and fishing.

In early March 1607, they sailed past the islands of Castuia and Saba, and eventually anchored at the Virgin Islands. This island could accommodate 100 ships in its sheltered harbour and this fact was noted: “It would be a great profit and commodity to the land.”

Here also the task of finding food and water was undertaken: “On this Island were caught great store of fresh fish and abundance of sea tortoises, which served all our fleet 3 days which were in number 8 score persons. We also killed great store of wild fowl, we cut the barks of certain trees which tasted much like cinnamon, and very hot in the mouth.” But for all the foodstuffs that they gathered, the biggest negative was the lack of fresh water, “Which makes the place void of any inhabitants.”

On the 6th March they sailed past Bitcam and Saint John Deportorieo. On the 7th they arrived at Mona. Here they took in fresh water: “which we stood in great need of, seeing that our water did smell so vilely that none of our men was able to endure it.”

While some sailors filled the water casks, the captain and the rest of the gentlemen, and other soldiers marched 6 miles into the interior in search of food. One man, Edward Brookes, died of what sounds like heat exhaustion on the trek. By the 9th March 1607 they sent a boat to the Isle of Moneta nearby. When they landed it was a long and arduous climb to the top of the island, but on reaching it, they found it to be a “Fertile and a plain ground, full of goodly grass, and abundance of fowls of all kinds.” The volume of birds was so great that talking could be done only by shouting. They “loaded 2 boats full in the space of 3 hours, to our great refreshing.” The next day they sailed away from the West Indies and headed northwards. By the 14th March they had crossed the Tropic of Cancer. On 21st March Percy recorded that at about five o’clock in the evening they encountered “a vehement tempest, which lasted all the night, with winds, rain, and thunders in a terrible manner”. They were forced to lie at anchor for the night, “because we thought we had been nearer land than we were.” For three days they sounded but could not find the seabed.

By 26th April 1607 they reached Virginia, where they were impressed by the abundant countryside. “The same day we entered into the bay of Chesupioc directly, without any let or hinderance; there we landed and discovered a little way, but we could find nothing worth the speaking of, but fair meadows and goodly tall trees, with such fresh-waters running through the woods, as I was almost ravished at the first sight thereof” Percy wrote. However having explored the area they were attacked at night by the Native Americans, “creeping upon all fours, from the hills like bears, with their bows in their mouths. During this attack, Captain Gabril Archer was wounded in both hands and a sailor was badly wounded in two places. The attack was beaten off and “they retired into the woods with a great noise, and so left us.”

virginia

    Picture of inhabitants of Virginia from a 1747 Collection of Voyages and Travel

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

On 27th April 1607 “We began to build up our shallop” (a large heavy boat with one or more masts): “The gentlemen and soldiers marched eight miles up into the land.” They found no natives during this march but came upon the remains of a fire in which the natives had been roasting oysters: On seeing the advancing men the Indians ran off into the mountains and left the oysters for them to eat.

After 18 days the shallop was ready to launch.” The Captain and some gentlemen went in her and discovered up the bay.” They explored the bay and found it to be too shallow for the larger ships to navigate: An island was discovered, “The place five miles in compass, without either bush or tree.” A large canoe was found and a “Good store of mussels and oysters which lay on the ground as thick as stones: we opened some, and found in many of them pearls.”

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Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

After exploring the island a group marched three or four miles further into the woods. They saw great clouds of smoke and discovered that the Indians had been burning the grass. The assumption was that this was done to either clear the ground for planting or to give a signal to other Indians to assemble and prepare to do battle with them. The party marched on through “excellent ground full of flowers of divers kinds and colours, and as godly trees as I have seen, as cedar, cypress, and other kinds.” Whilst on this part of the exploration they saw neither natives nor towns and at night went back to the ships: The depth of water was found to be too shallow to allow their ships to go further: “We rowed over to a point of land, where we found a channel, and sounded 6, 8, 10, or 12 fathom: which put us in good comfort. Therefore we named that point of land, Cape Comfort.”    

In the next instalment, I will use Percy’s account to describe what happened when they met various local tribes. The spelling in these three blogs has been modernized. However, where possible old words and expressions more typical of the seventeenth century have been kept in to maintain Percy’s style.

Adrian Skipp

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